For women in Vietnam, it is an all too common experience to be questioned about your marital status and your plans for child bearing.
“People usually act like we have an ‘expiration date’,” Dang Huong Giang, a sex-ed teacher at WeGrow Education in Hanoi told the Globe. “We have to get married before 26 and we have to bear a child before 30 or else we will be called ‘expired.'”
Now, faced with a rapidly ageing population, the Vietnamese government has joined the chorus of voices encouraging young women to marry and have children.
In April last year, then-Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc approved Decision 588 which aims to reach a goal total fertility rate (the average number of offspring a woman will bear in her lifetime) to between 2 and 2.2 children by 2030. Although the age range being encouraged by the government is not as restrictive as that described by Giang, officials are still urging women to marry by 30 and bear two children by 35.
Efforts to get women to embrace the initiative have ramped up in recent months, with a circular from the Ministry of Health announcing that from March women would receive unspecified cash or gifts for giving birth to two children before their 35th birthday. This is now in effect in 21 localities with low birth-rates, including Ho Chi Minh City with the lowest fertility rate in the country at 1.39 children per woman.
Although gender equality is embedded in Vietnam’s legal framework, gendered ideas of femininity and the roles of women in the family have made their way into the fabric of the state with policies that reinforce these notions. The decision to persuade women to marry and have babies by 35 can be seen as in keeping with previous state initiatives which have burdened women with a heavy load of responsibilities within the family.
For some women, this decision is seen as playing into traditional notions of womanhood that see mothering as a natural condition of being born female.
“When talking about motherhood in Vietnam, we have a phrase called ‘thiên Chức,'” Giang said. “Natural – thiên, and mission – chức, which means that nature decided that women have to want children and have to want to be a mother. Otherwise, she won’t fulfill her duty, she’s broken, she will always be missing something and she will never be whole. This belief started in ancient times and lasts till today.”
The plan now put forward by the government is specific to location, aiming to manipulate fertility rates between regions so that all areas of Vietnam eventually meet the country’s goal fertility replacement rate – the number of children born per woman at which population size remains steady over time. To do this, the government hopes to increase fertility rates by 10% in localities with low birth rates and decrease it as needed in places where the birth rate is considered to be too high over the next 10 years.
Although the decision to urge women to marry and have children before 35 is “not a forced policy directive”, said Naomi Kitahara, country representative of the United Nations Population Fund, it has potential to go against the principles of the International Conference on Population and Development. According to the conference, all couples and individuals should be able to freely and responsibly decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children.
“Unless monitored very closely, [the policy] could lead to rights violations if implemented at the local level with disincentives or incentives, negative social pressure or with other socio- economic consequences, or if it targets those who choose not to marry, those who choose not to have children, or those who have less than or more than two children,” Kitahara told the Globe.
This government effort to get women to embrace their so-called “natural mission” comes as the greying of Vietnam’s population poses a threat to its burgeoning economy.
“Vietnam’s population ageing is progressing fast,” Kitahara said. “It is estimated that Vietnam’s transition from an ‘ageing’ to an ‘aged’ population will occur within just 20 years … The most direct impact will be a shortage of labour force in the medium and long term.”
But today, in modern Vietnam, some women bristle at the traditional role they are expected to play as mothers and wives, questioning the outdated conception of family the government is pushing for the sake of the nation.
“To be precise, they [the government] did not push, [they] gave out a policy to promote reproduction, that’s all they did,” Giang, the sex-ed teacher in Hanoi, said. “However, I understand a concern here is that the propaganda might mislead people into believing that you have to have two children before 35. Body autonomy is very important and women still don’t really have that right now, let alone the exploitation of the reproduction process in the name of [women’s] ‘natural mission – motherhood’.”
Two teachings which have impacted the traditional ideals of femininity in Vietnam are the Confucian notions of the “three obediences” (tam tòng) and “four virtues” (tứ đức) for women.
Giang, described how the rigors of the “four virtues” come into play in the workplace. “Women are being judged and [given] demands on how they should look, how they should talk and how they should put everyone else first.”
Tran Le Quynh Mai, editor-in-chief of the non-profit media company, the Vietnam organisation for Gender Equality, explained the “three obediences” to the Globe.
“The first man is the father when she is a child. She has to follow her father and obey him. After that, when she gets married, she has to follow her husband. And if her husband dies, and she’s still not dead, she has to follow her son and if she doesn’t have a son then she’s worthless.”
According to Quynh Mai, these traditional beliefs begin to affect children at a young age.
“This stereotype is rooted and starts to be implemented in young girls’ minds,” she said. “If you’re a young girl, the purpose of your life, basically, according to traditional thought, is that you should be able to become a good wife to somebody.”
Quyn Mai has seen the impact that being a wife and mother under these traditional values has had on the women in her life.
“My mother for example,” she said. “She has lived her whole life in that stereotype and she kind of wanted me to be living the same thing. Although she is, I must say, not happy about her life.”
Women in Vietnam get a lot of attention from the government. They say, ‘you have your own union’. But that is how the government can target you, mobilise you, teach you, and discipline you
Tu Anh Hoang works to promote gender-equality and sexual reproductive health through the organisation she co-founded, the Center for Creative Initiatives in Health and Population. According to her, although Vietnam has a long history of promoting gender equity in its legal framework, traditional values not only play a role in women’s personal lives but also have taken root in matters of state.
The advancement of women has been a priority since Vietnam’s communist party was formed in 1930. Along with the formation of the party, the Vietnam Women’s Union was born the same year. Since then, the women’s union has created a large network of unions across the country to support women’s advancement in a state-approved fashion.
After the Viet Minh ousted colonial forces in 1945, the new state recognised women’s rights in its first Constitution of 1946, a document that stated men and women are equals. Subsequent constitutions and amendments have reaffirmed this notion and more laws have been added to legalise gender equity.
“The government really cares about the well-being of women and also about gender equality,” Tu Anh said. “The women’s union is among the most powerful mass organisations in Vietnam.”
But, from Tu Anh’s point of view, the government and the union is also responsible for integrating old traditional notions of womanhood into its practices.
In 2003, she was part of a research project in central Vietnam studying the ways Confucian ideology was promoted by the organisation. At that time, a local women’s union was running a programme termed the ‘Three Criteria Campaign’, which called on women to “Study Actively, Work Creatively, Raise Children Well and Build Happy Families.”
Previous campaigns from the union have played into similar notions, like two 1990s initiatives entitled ‘Women Help One Another in the Household Economy’ and ‘Raising Children Well.’
Tu Anh points to the pressures women have gotten from the state, long prior to the government’s 2020 push for women to have children.
“Women in Vietnam get a lot of attention from the government. They say, ‘you have your own union,'” she said. “But that is how the government can target you, mobilise you, teach you, and discipline you.”
As the government’s pronatal policy was announced, women responded with ire to the flawed approach of calls for women to birth two children by 35.
“We reacted strongly to this call,” Tu Anh said. “Because again you see the woman is a kind of subject. You have to be responsible for the welfare of the country.”
Quynh Mai was careful to point out that the government decision is simply “encouragement”, which she does not oppose, but it still places an added burden on Vietnamese women.
“I think now people are putting too much pressure, like double the pressure on women,” Quynh Mai said. “Now as women go to work and contribute a huge part to the GDP and other criteria of the economy, it is very important that people should acknowledge the other sacrifices of women.”
“If you want a woman to do that much work … They should make sure that she gets what she deserves.”
Decision 588 also does not address the often fraught and burdensome endeavour of marriage and motherhood. A 2019 study found that 63% of Vietnamese women have experienced one or more forms of physical, sexual, emotional, economic violence or controlling behaviours by their husbands.
In addition to the often harsh realities of becoming a mother, Quynh Mai pointed out that having children often puts a halt to a woman’s career.
“Many companies and businesses do not want to take a woman back after she has had a baby and had maternity leave,” she said. “I remember a friend of my mother. She was about to be the CEO of a very good bank, and then she had to abandon that to become a mother.”
In addition to this, Giang and Quynh Mai shared that the government is putting forward a traditional, heteronormative notion of bringing children into this world which excludes diversity.
“Having children and getting married is really not the same thing.” Quynh Mai said. “A lot of women nowadays – we don’t want to get married, and that’s okay.”
In Giang’s opinion, the antiquated conception of family present in this government decision could be harmful for those who aren’t interested in having a stereotypical family.
“The proganda made it look like they [the government] prefered only hetero women and legal mariage which excluded sexual diversity and people who choose not to get married, or not to have children,” Giang said. “It will make people believe that there are fewer choices and make people who prefer conservative families to attack other’s choices more easily.”
Despite the pressing demands of an ageing population, many view the government’s policy to incentivise marriage and child-bearing as in need of improvement to rid it of outdated conceptions of family and a woman’s place in society.
“I don’t like the policy as now it stands,” Giang said. “I believe they [the government] can do better than that.”